Serge Ibaka, Kevin Durant

Serge Ibaka returns from ‘postseason-ending’ injury and transforms Thunder-Spurs series


The Oklahoma Thunder were running out the clock in their Game 3 win over the Spurs, and Serge Ibaka was still on the court. Considering his injury, it appeared long past the time he should have been removed. Eventually, Kevin Durant left his seat on the bench and approached Scott Brooks.

“Get Serge,” Durant appeared to say.

Less than a minute later, Ibaka was pointing to the sky and walking to the bench as the Oklahoma City fans showered him with a standing ovation.

You can understand Brooks playing Ibaka too long. Thunder rolled the dice on Ibaka once already tonight, and the results were spectacular.

Playing for the first time since Oklahoma City ruled him out for the rest of the playoffs, Ibaka scored 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting, grabbed seven rebounds and blocked four shots. The Thunder outscored San Antonio by 11 during his 30 minutes in their nine-point win.

“I try to do my best I can to be everywhere,” Ibaka said.

He sure did.

Showing only occasional effects of his strained calf, Ibaka proved crucial on both ends of the floor.

From the game’s very first possession, when he used his long arms and quickness to close successfully on a Tony Parker mid-range jumper, Ibaka disrupted San Antonio’s previously surging offense.

The Spurs have shot 64 percent in the paint with Ibaka off the court this series and 46 percent with him on it. They’ve also taken just 44 percent, as opposed to 53 percent, of their shots in that high-efficiency area against Ibaka.

Indirectly, Ibaka made a much wider defensive impact. The Thunder stuck closer to San Antonio all over the court, likely in part because they knew Ibaka was protecting the paint in case they got beat.

Offensively, Ibaka’s mid-range jumpers proved a critical tertiary option. He needed fewer than 12 minutes of playing time to outscore Oklahoma City’s non-Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook starters in Games 1 and 2 combined.

Other elements also changed from Games 1 and 2 – the series moved to Oklahoma City, and Reggie Jackson started – but Ibaka played the most-influential game of the 2014 playoffs so far. Considering the stakes and his injury, this could go down a legendary performance in Thunder history. Oklahoma City’s offensive rating (92.6 to 125.7) and defensive rating (116.8 to 98.7) turned around dramatically with Ibaka on the court from off it.

But Ibaka’s big night will be viewed as historic only if the Thunder win this series. They’re still down 2-1, and they need their ailing X-Factor to produce like this again in Game 4 Tuesday. That’s a short turnaround in the playoffs, and the emotional high Ibaka felt tonight will be reduced.

Ibaka changes this entire series. He doesn’t mean the Thunder will win it.

But he means they could.

Pizza and soccer on agenda for Celtics on trip to Italy

Perry Jones III, Malcolm Miller, James Young, Jordan Mickey
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MILAN (AP) — After a couple of days in Milan, Isaiah Thomas‘ Italian experience is still lacking a certain something.

“I’m waiting on some pizza,” said a laughing Thomas, who used to do commercials for a regional pizza franchise when he played for the Sacramento Kings. “The place we went to last night didn’t have no pizza so hopefully tonight we go somewhere I can order some pizza for real.”

This trip isn’t just about culinary experiences, though. The Celtics are in Milan to play an exhibition game against Olimpia Milano on Tuesday before traveling to Spain to play Real Madrid as part of the NBA Global Games.

Ahead of the team’s practice session on Sunday, Thomas was also looking forward to his first soccer match, as the Celtics headed to San Siro later for AC Milan’s home match against Napoli in the Italian league – after an afternoon trip to nearby Lake Como.

“That’s going to be fun,” Thomas told The Associated Press at the Celtics’ first practice in Italy. “I’m excited about that. I’ve never been to a soccer match, to have my first soccer match be in Italy is going to be nice.”

Teammate Marcus Smart said the trip was also an important bonding experience for a young roster with plenty of new pieces. They went for a players-only meal in Milan on Saturday night.

“We had a good time with each other,” Smart said. “No phones, so everyone was talking to one other. It was good overall fun.

“We understand the severity of this trip, it is a business trip but at the same time not many people get this chance to travel like we do so we understand its business but we’re here to have fun at the same time.”

Coach Brad Stevens has overseen plenty of rebuilding since taking over the Celtics in 2013 but still led the team to the playoffs last season after trading point guard Rajon Rondo – the only remaining player from the 2008 championship team. After being swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers, the team is aiming higher this season. For Stevens, it all starts here in Italy.

“These sessions are really important to get something accomplished in practice and to make sure that we’re continuing to progress,” Stevens said. “It’s still very much a part of our training camp, and so you’ve got all of the great things about being a tourist – getting a chance to see new things and experience new things – and at the same time we’re 24 or 25 days away from our season opener.”

And after spending so many hours in the gym during the offseason, Thomas is ready to start playing actual games again – even if its just preseason.

“We’re ready to beat up on somebody else, we’re tired of beating up on each other,” Smith said.

Kings’ Karl admits mistakes in DeMarcus Cousins trade controversey

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In the NBA, elite players have the leverage. It is just simple supply and demand.

DeMarcus Cousins is an elite player — and a favorite of owner Vivek Ranadive. He is not going anywhere.

Which made this summer’s “George Karl wants trade Cousins” a battle the coach couldn’t ultimately win — the owner wasn’t going to sign off on it, and the fans are going to side with Boogie. Remember Karl said he never had a player that was untradable, and that spiraled into reports Karl probed trade options with other teams, much to the frustration of management and Cousins himself.

Karl owned up to some of his mistakes in an interview on Comcast Bay Area, as reported by James Ham at

“To be honest with you, I apologized to DeMarcus for making the trade comment that I’ve never coached a player that’s untradeable,” Karl told Christensen. “That was wrong for me to say, because you all (the media) took it and blew it up into crazy.”

“But it’s my responsibility to be smart enough to not say things like that,” Karl continued. “So I did apologize because I thought that was the only thing, maybe some other things, but really the only thing that got us separated was that comment that then everybody wrote the we’re going to trade [Cousins].”

The relationship between Cousins and Karl — not to mention Rajon Rondo and other veterans — is the biggest key to the Kings’ season. Karl and Cousins say their relationship is solid now, but what happens when that is put under stress at some point during the season?

In talking to people around the team, the Kings players seemed to have formed a tight bond — even if part of the glue of that bond is a distrust of Karl that can work for them. This is a team that has the talent to compete for the bottom couple playoff seeds in the Western Conference, but everybody needs to be pulling on the rope in the same direction. We will see pretty quickly if the Kings can do that.